Why soldiers “serve.”

If you’re not a Soldier (Marine, Airman, or Sailor), or are close to someone who is, chances are that you have the wrong idea about them. Memorial day approaches, and everyone is gonna thank a vet. “Thank you for your service,” they’ll say, sincerely.
Almost without exception, every time I’m in uniform, a civilian will thank me for what I do. People will try to buy my coffee at the gas station for me. Wawa gives it to soldiers in uniform for free. Soldiers get discounts in many places by presenting their military IDs. All this stuff is from a country grateful for the sacrifices Soldiers make. But what the country doesn’t realize is that the vast majority of Soldiers don’t become Soldiers for selfless reasons. Soldiers don’t become Soldiers out of any deep belief in patriotism. They don’t do it for “God and Country.”

Soldiers become Soldiers for several reasons, but you can bet that the first of those reasons isn’t because they wanted to defend our great nation. It may be a part of the reason, but it’s hardly ever the deciding factor. While I recognize that there was an influx of patriotism after 9/11, the fact of the matter is that most Soldiers join because of one of the following reasons, in no particular order:
Money for college
Don’t want to go to college
Need a job
Seeking adventure/excitement
Seeking travel
Wants to be a Soldier because they think Soldiers are badass
Family tradition
For a personal challenge
Because they think others will respect them for it

I’m not saying that any of these reasons are bad reasons. But if I had to guess why the majority of people join (at least in combat jobs) it’s because they want to be a badass. I’m in a combat job, and I see evidence of this all the time among those who recently joined. Many of the young guys talk about wanting to deploy like it’s a badge of honor. But those who are deployed usually want nothing more than to go home. And I have to say that, though I’ve never been in combat, I’m wise enough to know that it’s not a place anyone wants to be. When I hear these kids saying they want to go fight, I always ask them if they heard that people are being killed over there. They say “yeah, but …” thinking that it won’t happen to them. Once they do deploy, it’s a different story, especially if they see a friend killed.
I’m not a pacifist by any means. If I were deployed, I would certainly not hesitate to kill anyone trying to kill me or those from my unit. I would do my job to the best of my ability, and hope that I would never shirk my duties as a Soldier and NCO. I would go without complaint if I were sent, but I don’t know that I would ever volunteer.
There are exceptions, the most notable being Pat Tillman who left the NFL to join the Army. He was killed by friendly fire. Hardly the sacrifice anyone would like to make. He was selfless, and there are certainly others who’ve made a true sacrifice to defend what they believed was necessary to defend. Know that they are the exception, not the rule.
Being in the Army is great. I’m surrounded by great people who I’d not hesitate to go into battle with. The professionalism of most Soldiers is commendable, but there are some who clearly don’t want to be there. Some are indifferent. But when it comes down to it, we all do our jobs. For better or worse, no matter the cause, when told to go, we go. So, when you thank a Soldier, thank them the way you’d thank a plumber who fixes your leaky pipe because, if he wasn’t getting paid, he wouldn’t be there. I’m sorry if I’ve sullied your image of our military. It’s just the truth of the matter.

Whenever people thank me for my service, I don’t know how to appropriately respond. Should I say “you’re welcome” when I’m very aware I didn’t join for them? What I want to say is “actually, I do this because I needed better health insurance, and the extra money every month really helps. See, I joined in part because of a family tradition that all males in my family “serve” in the military, and as a kid I thought it was kind of romantic. I also thought it would be really cool to play with all the guns and throw grenades, you know make me kind of a badass. But we don’t really get to play with the guns very often, and, as you can see, I’m not really a badass. In fact, I’m fairly miserable if I don’t get a good night’s sleep, which is often the case because there’s always a group of people who make a lot of noise in the barracks while they drink, or someone is always snoring way too loudly for me to fall asleep. You see, it’s all about the people I’m around. Most of them are really good guys who have a great sense of humor. They can really tell a story! If it weren’t for them, hell, I’d get out as soon as I could. I appreciate that you thank me. It’s better than being spat upon. But really, it puts me in an awkward spot. If I say “you’re welcome,” I feel fraudulent because I know my motives, and I’m allowing you to make incorrect assumptions about them. I can’t educate you on reality because, usually, I’m on my way to work, and more importantly, I don’t know if I care enough about your incorrect assumptions to do so. But understand this: I never, ever think of you when I put this uniform on. I don’t think of the safety of this country, spreading democracy, liberating the oppressed, or anything like that. I mainly just think of how I hate velcro. Maybe if I actually felt there was a threat worth worrying about, I’d consider you and your family’s safety, defending liberty and the American Way when I shoot my rifle at plastic targets, but usually I just hope that I get a good score because my promotion points depend on it.”

But since I don’t have time to say all of that, I just say “thanks for your support,” and I mean it (edit: that was never really honest. I really never cared if they supported, or not. Really, I just say it because, well, what do you say to someone who’s just being nice to you regardless if it’s out of ignorance, or some sort of proxy “thank you” to their deceased grandfather who served in WWII – a man who really deserved it?


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